Former principal brought change

DANIEL McCABE | Dr. Rocke Robertson, who led the University from 1962-69, one of the most turbulent periods in its history, died in Ottawa this week at the age of 86.

The McGill of today still bears his imprint. Robertson profoundly altered the way the University is run, opening up the decision-making process and clearing the way for students and non-academic staff to sit on Senate and the Board of Governors. Academics were given a much more prominent role to play in the way McGill operates through the creation of a number of powerful Senate committees.

Also, many of the University's buildings were constructed while he served as principal, and the Faculty of Management was created during his watch.

A native of British Columbia, Robertson first came to McGill in 1929 to begin studies in science. After completing his bachelor's degree, he went on to medical school, graduating at the top of his class. He did a series of medical internships, at the Montreal General Hospital and abroad, before enlisting in the army in 1940. Robertson became the commanding officer of a field surgical unit in Italy during World War II, and achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel before he returned to civilian life in 1945.

"If you look at the pattern of his career, he was a man who would come into a new job, size the place up, make the drastic changes that had to be made, and then move on to the next challenge," says Dr. David Mulder, the chair of McGill's Department of Surgery, who knew Robertson as a student, a colleague and a friend.

Robertson was the founding chair of the University of British Columbia's department of surgery and later became its acting dean of medicine. "UBC had no medical school when he arrived there. He was one of the people who built UBC's faculty of medicine," says Mulder. Robertson even helped design some of UBC's medical buildings.

Robertson returned to McGill in 1959 to chair the University's Department of Surgery and became the Montreal General Hospital's chief of surgery. Among the students Robertson recruited to his department was Mulder. "He taught at the bedside, perhaps better than anyone else I've ever seen."

Mulder also credits Robertson with having a wide influence in the areas of trauma care and emergency medicine.

"His military experience in treating injured patients and in trauma procedures stayed with him. He really laid the foundation for trauma care. His writings had a major impact throughout North America."

Robertson told his friends that he was looking for new challenges when he agreed to become McGill's principal in 1962. He found plenty.

Robertson held McGill's top job during a period of remarkable expansion as baby boomers began to enter university. He wrestled with the Quebec government over its "rattrapage" policies through which the province directed most of its funding to francophone universities to enable them to "catch up" to McGill and the other English-language institutions.

Robertson also dealt with a powerful and angry student movement that clamoured for changes to the way McGill was governed. These protesters were determined -- some were downright dangerous.

"There were police all over campus, looking for firebombs," recalls Stanley Frost, Robertson's vice-principal (administration and professional faculties) during many of those years. "We found two or three actual explosives. This wasn't fun and games. It was deadly serious."

According to Frost, Robertson had just the right blend of toughness, patience, open-mindedness and diplomacy. He never let himself -- or McGill -- get pushed around, but he didn't ignore the demands for democratization either. In 1969, the Montreal Gazette declared, "His has been the most difficult task of all -- that of realizing that some valid need for change may lie at the heart of even the crudest and most extravagant demands."

During Robertson's time in office, student enrolment increased by 70%, the number of staff went up by 85% and McGill's expenditures shot up by 167%. Ten new buildings were constructed and the Faculty of Management was established -- over the strenous objections of professors in the Department of Economics who argued "that McGill shouldn't degenerate into a trade school," recalls Frost.

As a young man, the powerfully built Robertson was an exceptional athlete, winning college honours in boxing, football and tennis. His tennis game remained outstanding for decades and as principal, he was a familiar presence at McGill football games, shouting his support for the Redmen from the stands.

A fan of the writings of Samuel Johnson and Stephen Leacock, Robertson was also a book collector, specializing in 18th century publications and dictionaries.

Had Robertson been a less able individual, the results for McGill would have been disastrous, says Frost.

"He was a product of the operating theatre, where he literally held the power of life or death in his hands. He knew how frightful responsibility could be, but he never shied away from it. McGill was very lucky to have had such a man for its principal during that period. To my mind, he was a godsend."